A Prize to Celebrate: Abdellatif Laabi Wins 2009 Goncourt Literary Prize for Poetry

By Elie Chalala
Abdellatif Laabi by Mamoun Sakkal for Al Jadid.

Literary prizes in the Arab world are hardly occasions for celebration. With the exception of the Sultan Bin al-Owais Award, a good number of literary awards have been greeted with cynicism and skepticism. Many of the prizes are tainted by Gulf or state money and sponsorship, as well as by scandals. Criticism has been directed towards the criteria for selecting candidates, the qualifications of the administrators of the prizes, and, importantly, the qualifications of the committee members themselves, and even the qualifications of the administrators of the prizes, and even the qualifications of the judging committee members themselves. Too often, personal and political considerations trump all others, with prizes being handed out to those closest to the award juries and most supportive of state policies, rather than the most talented.

However, the awarding of the 2009 Goncourt Prize for poetry to the Paris-based Moroccan Abdellatif Laabi is an encouraging exception, giving us real reason to cheer. Choosing Laabi is a hopeful sign since, in an era of Gulf money and Gulf-controlled media, it has been a rarity that a literary prize is awarded to an openly critical progressive like Laabi, who served eight years of a ten year sentence in a Moroccan prison for nothing more than having shared his political and literary works with his own people.

Sixty-seven year old Laabi is a poet, novelist, playwright, translator, teacher and journalist. In 2009 he received the Goncourt Prize for poetry for his “life achievements,” according to the Goncourt Literary Prize statement. Press reports cite the publication of a collection of his works by La defrance publishing house as a critical factor in his victory. The prize was to be awarded to him at a ceremony January 12, 2010. The Goncourt jury included fellow Moroccan Taher Ben Jelloun, Françoise Chandernagor, Patrick Rambaud, Michel Tournier, Edmonde Charles-Roux, Robert Sabatier, Jorge Semprun, Françoise Mallet-Joris, Bernard Pivot and Didier Decoin.

Responding to the Goncourt decision, Laabi issued the following statement: “This award is a kind gesture from the Goncourt Prize jury, and I receive it with satisfaction, and I take this opportunity to announce that there will be a new book in January titled ‘An Unexpected Book.’” In the new book, Laabi aims to revisit some of the stages of his life and career as a writer.

Founded in 1985, the Goncourt Prize for poetry is to be distinguished from the prize for the novel, which is more than 100 years old. And unlike the Goncourt for the novel, the poetry prize is not awarded on the merit of any particular piece, but rather for the recipient’s entire body of work. Consequently, it is given only to well-established writers with an impressive publication record. Laabi is the second Moroccan to win a Goncourt Prize. (Laabi was also recipient of the Alain Bosquet Prize in 2006.) The first was Taher Ben Jelloun, whose novel “La nuit sacrée (The Sacred Night) earned him the prize in 1987. Another recipient of the poetry prize was the French-Lebanese-Egyptian Andre Chedid, who won it in 2002.

I

Laabi’s journalistic career has made a lasting political impact on many readers and intellectuals. The avant-garde literary journal Anfas/Souffles, which he founded with other Moroccan poets in 1966, was originally envisaged as a meeting place for poets, but quickly embraced a broad variety of Moroccan creative talent, including painters, filmmakers, playwrights, scholars and philosophers. This experiment reached other cultures of the Maghreb, sparking a literary renaissance in North Africa. Sadly, and all too typically, the revival was cut short when the journal was banned in 1972.

In an interview with Kristin Prevallet in 2001, Laabi discussed in detail the magazine’s experience: “We were 23 years old when we started [Anfas/Souffles]. There was Mohammed Khair-Eddine, a major poet and novelist who died a few years ago in total poverty. There was Mostafa Nissaboury, who lives in Casablanca and continues to write and publish. And then there are all those who came later. Many writers – from Morocco, Algeria … It was not just Arabs who participated in the project; there were Africans, several French writers, a German writer… The fact remains that this was a magazine that allowed an avant-garde movement to be born, to express itself, and therefore to help the literature that was coming out of Arab countries move forward.” Anfas/Souffles led to the founding of Forward in 1970, which, according to Uthman Tazghart of the Beirut-based newspaper Al Khbar, was considered to be the most avant-garde organization in the history of leftist opposition in the Maghreb,

The Morocco of today is very different from the one ruled by King Hassan II. It was under his watch that Anfas magazine was stifled on the grounds that it posed a danger to public security. In 1972 Laabi and Abraham Serfaty received “dawn visitors,” a nickname for security officers. Laabi was sentenced to 10 years in Kenitra prison on charges of conspiring to overthrow the regime. Serfaty began engaging in clandestine activity, only to be arrested two years later. His 17-year jail term (1974-1991) earned him the nickname “sheikh of political prisoners,” according to Uthman Tazghart of Al Khbar. In contrast with the tactics of his predecessor, the current monarch, King Mohammed VI, has appointed poet and novelist Bensalem Himmich as minister of culture.

Abdellatif Laabi has never in his work separated the realms of politics from those of culture and literature. His texts, according to Abd al-Raahim al-Khusaar of the Beirut-based newspaper An Nahar, are born of personal experience, which started with leftist dreams that were refined in the dark cells of Moroccan prisons.

In an interview with Kristin Prevallet, Laabi said, “I am someone who fought, politically and intellectually, against dictatorship in Morocco. I do not separate the work of the intellectual – the production of ideas and symbolic value – from the work of being a citizen.” He adds, “For me, poetry is too closely connected to life and what it stands for. What is life if not dignity, liberty, the ability to express oneself freely?”For his refusal to distinguish between the two, he was repaid with eight years in a Moroccan prison cell.

While he was in jail, Laabi’s cause was adopted by various groups that defend prisoners of conscience, including Amnesty International. He was also awarded the Prix de la Liberté by the PEN organization, and the Prix International de Poésie by the Fondation des Arts in Rotterdam. Although the broad campaign of international solidarity led to his early release from prison, Laabi continued to be seen as a threat by the Moroccan state, which forced him into exile in France.

What does it take to shake one’s faith? Apparently Laabi’s imprisonment, torture and humiliation did not affect “the spirit of the poet’s vibrancy, or his rebellious temperament.” He remained “a voice calling for rights and freedoms in his country, demanding democracy, social justice, voicing criticisms of extremism, advocating the rights of women, gays, and repressed minorities – not to forget his relentless solidarity with the Palestinian people,” wrote Uthman Tazghart in Al Akhbar.

The likes of Laabi aare not very numerous on the Arab cultural scene nowadays. Many of the intellectuals who championed progressive causes and made critical thinking a vital part of contemporary Arab discourse are either dead, have been crushed by the state, or co-opted by Gulf money, which has an iron grip on the world of information throughout the region. Today’s Arab intellectuals are left with essentially two choices: either work for Gulf capital, with its attendant political and moral implications, or work for state apparatuses, with similar results. In either case, they become no more than professional propagandists. And of course, this is only if they are fortunate enough to have a place in either private Gulf enterprises or state bureaucracies. While some might dismiss Laabi’s unjust imprisonment as a relic of a dark Middle Eastern political past, Syrian writer Michel Kilo, who was sentenced to three years in jail, and recently released upon completing his sentence – all for daring to sign a petition mildly critical of the Damascus regime – would undoubtedly be of the opinion that state repression and censorship are alive and well in the Arab world.

II

The issue of language in Laabi’s writing is complex and multidimensional. He has steadfastly rejected the term “Francophone,” which is commonly attached to non-native writers of French. For him, “Francophone” is a loaded term with political implications. “I don’t really like the term ‘Francophone.’ Aside from the fact that it’s politically charged, the term is reductive. It’s a means of confining very diverse literary experiences – each of which are distinct – into a singular issue of language,” he told Kristin Prevallet.

Laabi’s rejection of the Francophone label is a means of decolonizing the “Moroccan mind,” as he put it; decolonizing the economy and government is not enough. Writing in French, like any native French writer, is his means of doing so. Distinguishing non-native writers from native ones is a colonial legacy, meaning that even when non-natives excel they are merely considered “good pupils.” As Laabi put it, “We are not ‘pupils’ and we want be finished with colonial history.”

While he makes no apologies, he offers common sense explanations. Writing in French was not a choice; it was the only language he knew. He is comfortable with French and he writes in it because, as he told Kristin Prevallet, he did not grow up in an independent and free country where he learned the language of his own people. But the relationship with French is not quite that simple: “What happened after that is a very long story – one of love, of hate, of rejection – concerning the French language. Now I am at peace with it. The colonial experience was what it was; it was tragic, but some things were brought in as well. I do not hold any grudges and am no longer enslaved, but I am a product of this history. I have only lived in France for 15 years; all that I have written in the past and continue to write today is in touch with the reality of Morocco and the Third World – and I write in French. I am very comfortable with French, but I would not say that one language is superior to another...”

Though he does not write in Arabic, Arabic remains very alive and awake in him. “My birth-language is Arabic, my writing language is French. Perhaps what makes what I write unique is that the two cultures are intertwined. Even when I am writing in French, my Arabic language is there. There is a musicality to Arabic, and these words enter into my French texts. I think that people are not seeing the originality of this phenomenon, which is currently happening worldwide,” he told Kristin Prevallet. Mahmoud Abd al-Ghani of Al Akhbar newspaper echoed this point, saying, “Laabi is a poet in French, but his mother tongue constantly resides in him, whether or not he is conscious of it.”

Although Laabi’s writings violate mainstream French literary conventions by championing the avant-guarde and rebelling against “established standards,” the French appear to have accepted him as one of their own and have honored him with some of their most prestigious awards. Laabi remains preoccupied with his artistic identity, which is subject to constant change. According to Mahmoud Abd al-Ghani, Laabi writes poetry when his sentiments cannot be expressed in novel form, and he writes theater when narration becomes too confining. His translations of Arab literature into French reveal a lot about his ties to and love of the Arab world and letters. He has translated works by Mahmoud Darwish, Mohammed al-Maghout, Hanna Minah, Abd al-Wahab al-Bayati, Samih al-Qassem. In responding to the Goncourt decision, Laabi mentioned the possibility of publishing his complete works in Arabic at a Syrian publishing house.

III

Awarding Laabi the Goncourt Prize is as much an occasion for indignation over his treatment by the Moroccan government as it is one for celebration. When fellow Moroccan poet Abd al-Raheem al-Khasaar was asked by Al Hayat newspaper to comment, his answer was: “Laabi is one of the poets whom I spend the night reading with love; nowadays, there are few poets whom we stay up late reading, and Laabi is among these few.” Al-Khasaar regretted that Laabi’s work had not received similar recognition from the Moroccan government, since, in addition to his progressive political past, Laabi does not write in Arabic. Al-Khasaar continues: “This man, who started reading Dostoevsky at the age of 14, and continued writing for 53 years, enriching world literature with more than 30 books, most of which are poetry, and who is now 67 years old, was not honored in his country. Instead of his country offering him a single prize, it granted him eight years in jail and gave him the number 18611 as his prison identity number. I believe the prison years were also a prize.”

Is Laabi a household name – a well-known Arab poet in the company of Mahmoud Darwish? The answer is “no,” but not without explanation. “Despite his popularity, truthfulness and the fertility of his imagination, he is still exiled from our contemporary culture, unread and unrecognized. Thus, his influence on current Moroccan poetry is limited. There are two reasons. The first is circulation – it is difficult to have access to his poetry, either original or translated. The second is aesthetic, mainly due to the feeling among many that the era of commitment or engagement has gone. Laabi’s appeal lies more in his charismatic personality than in his writings,” said Abd al-Latif al-Warwari in Al Hayat newspaper.

IV

Laabi has had a rich career. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in literature in 1964 from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities in Rabat, which was followed by a secondary school teaching career that lasted until he was arrested in 1972. After being released from jail in 1980, he left for France. In 1985, he earned a degree in advanced studies from the University of Bordeaux. He returned to Morocco in hopes of renewing his residency there, but soon went back to France, disillusioned. Despite this disillusionment, Laabi kept moving between France and Morocco as a “migratory bird,” to use the words of Abd al-Rahim al Kussaar. Since 1988, Laabi has been a member of the Academe Mallarme.

Laabi has written a number of collections of poetry, novels and plays in French. It was during his imprisonment that Laabi’s creativity fully matured. Among his works are “L’Œil et la nuit” (The Eye and the Night, 1969), “Le Règne de barbarie” (The Reign of Barbarism, 1976), “Sous le baillon” (Under the Gag,1981) and “L’ةcorché vif” (The Tortured Soul, 1986). In these works, which he terms prosoèmes, Laabi strives for a refined, lucid and angry language free from the pseudo-mimetic function of prose. In “L’Echorche vif,” he fearlessly incorporates personal material, such as letters to Mario de Andrade and to his son. In “Le Chemin des ordalies “(The Path of Ordeals,1982), Laabi transforms his prison letters, later published as “Chroniques de la citadelle d’exil” (Chronicles from the Citadel of Exile, 1983) into a lucid prose-poem, fashioning one of the most memorable accounts of imprisonment ever written.

He is also the author of “Autobiographie du voleur de feu” (Autobiography of the Thief of Fire,1987). Other works include a theatrical piece titled “Le Baptême chacaliste” (The Jackal’s Baptism, 1987), and the poetry sequences “Discours sur la colline arabe” (Discourses on the Arab Hill, 1985) and “Histoire de sept crucifiés de l’espoir” (History of the Seven Crucified by Hope,1980). In 1980, a collection of essays by distinguished authors and scholars regarding his work was published as “Pour Laâbi.”

Other works include “Le soleil se meurt” (The Sun is Dying Out, 1992), “Le Spleen de Casablanca” (Casablanca Spleen, 1996) and “Tribulations d’un rêveur attitré” (The Tribulations of a Professional Dreamer, 2008). These works dwell on human emotion and are preoccupied with the defense and promotion of greater justice and freedom.
Laabi’s views about the politics in the Arab world were best expressed in 1991, when he wrote in Jeune Afrique: “Everything which the Arab reality offers that is generous, open and creative is crushed by regimes whose only anxiety is to perpetuate their own power and self-serving interest.” Nearly two decades later, some of Laabi’s perceptions and uses of language have changed, but nowhere do we discern an optimistic or positive view of the political present or future, regardless of who is the minister of culture in Morocco.

This article appears in Al Jadid Vol. 15, No. 61 (2009) 
Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid


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